Local writer Stephen Kessler is rapidly becoming the local poster child for the disease of really smart people saying stupid things. (If I was actually smart, I might be a candidate for the next poster child on this.)
In a recent Sentinel piece, Kessler attacks Councilmember Mathews’s integrity because of her active support for the library/parking/housing proposal downtown. He correctly notes that Mathews has followed the rules and recused herself from any city deliberations on the project. However, Kessler has decided that Mathews lacks integrity because she dared to encourage others to support a project she wholeheartedly supports as an individual community member and a person with an unmatched record of work on behalf of our local libraries.
Let’s think about what the proper thing for Mathews to do in the context of the “conflict of interest” laws and rules that led Mathews to recuse herself. Let’s start with the term “conflict of interest.” Mathews and her family own property near the project site -- so the law is concerned that Mathews might vote to favor her property interest over the broader community interest. To avoid that, the law says she must sit out city council deliberations on the project. The beauty of this legal structure is that it recognizes the elected official in question has a reason (perhaps even a need) to consider their own interests. By recusing herself, Mathews is freed to protect her and family’s interest without raising questions of whether she is acting for herself or acting as a public official. To put it bluntly, this is the opposite of an ethical violation—it maintains the opportunity to preserve one’s integrity by being clear who the recused public official is working for in this specific instance.
Let’s imagine that a talented and well-known columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel owns a home near downtown. Now let’s imagine he is also a member of the city council and that the city is considering creating a garbage landfill in a pit next door to his house. He would certainly recuse himself for voting on the project because he would have a clear-cut conflict of interest. He would also certainly speak up about how awful the garbage dump would be. And he should do that because that dump next to his house would be very problematic for him. He has every right to speak up to protect his home and the property he owns.
Because he believes in free speech -- and because he’s not stupid.
Another bit of evidence of Kessler’s cleverness. He has made sure to clarify who the demons are. The evil Cynthia Mathews. The demonic “Friends of the Library.” The questionable “stakeholders” like the school board president and the downtown business owners. (Note how he made them questionable by putting “stakeholders” in quotation marks – to make sure we doubt that they are really legitimate participants in this effort. Clearly, to Kessler, school people and local business people have no legitimate interest in library and parking and housing issues!) The horrible local communications team at Miller Maxfield (who have done work on dastardly community efforts like reducing homelessness, creating more affordable housing and promoting alternative transportation and cleaner energy). If we can just make good groups and individuals look bad, we can win the day. I wonder if there are any ethical issues are around this approach...
(I've been traveling for three weeks and avoiding the blog world... but I will now make you suffer with even more posts on the library/parking/housing thing very soon)